Are Pittsburgh G20 protesters wasting their time?

pittsburg welcomes the world. G20

Justin Kownacki thinks so
(I tend to disagree, but he makes some telling points)

Dear protesters (and those who feel like shouting while at home),

Protesting is, with rare exception, a waste of your time and effort. The appalling political and socioeconomic atrocities you seek to call attention to (if not overthrow completely) will continue long after your minor show of solidarity accrues its obligatory minimalist press coverage. What you’re upset about today will still be something to be upset about tomorrow, but the difference is, what you’re upset about has the benefit of international resources, global awareness and mainstream media control.

You have a hoodie.

Instead of descending upon Pittsburgh — a city that’s only now emerging from a decades-long coma of post-industrial demoralization, and which finally has a non-Steelers-related excuse for visitors from beyond the tri-state area to book hotel rooms downtown — and doing your anarchic best to topple the world’s most oppressive regimes by smashing the windows of small businesses, vandalizing police equipment and engaging in other counterculture activities that people with day jobs will eventually be taxed into repairing, consider this:

He then offers 20 Things That Make More Sense Than Protesting apparently not knowing that he waded into the long-running disagreement on the left as whether it is better to work incrementally for change or go for the whole enchilada. He’s obviously an incrementalist.

Mass protest worked well in the 60’s with civil rights and the Vietnam war. It was new, different, and the powers-that-be hadn’t figured out how to counter it. Also, protesters then weren’t (for the most part) smashing coffee house windows in the delusion they were striking a mighty blow against the state.

In our wired 24/7 world where media response by the other side(s) is instant and police routinely herd protesters into far-away areas so as to neutralize them, mass protest (especially when you don’t have the masses on your side) increasingly seems a rote exercise. Somehow, we need to devise new, better, and more effective ways of protesting.

Pittsburgh Indymedia has continuing, excellent coverage of the G20 protests.


  1. I’m not so sure I’m unaware of divisiveness on the Left or that I’m an incrementalist in the “thinks small, dreams small” capacity. But I do agree that the shock of massive protests that worked to convert thought prcoesses 30-40 years ago no longer has the same effect, and that people who seek to create change today need to find another method.

    I also believe that acting to improve something directly will have better chances for long-term success than those provided by momentary disruption and destruction. If the anarchists of the world have a business plan ready to install when they overthrow their favorite czar, I’d love to see it. Otherwise, even the most bombastic coup leaves the victors holding the pieces of a system they have no way to repair.

    • Saul Alinsky was an incrementalist, and he sure thought big. His tactics were local. And he was quite effective. The socialist Left mostly dislikes him because, well, he wasn’t socialist and thought the best way to get change was community by community, not by mass uprising (which never seem to come anyway.)

      I helped organize antiwar protests in LA from about 2003-2006. Sometimes they were huge and those did get major media attention. Which is the point, I think. But other times, on the smaller ones or if the mood of the country was elsewhere, it was like having a conversation without yourself. A bunch of lefties came, waved signs, got militant, then went home.

      I liked your post, what I said wasn’t meant as a putdown, more as mass protest has worked, isn’t now, what can we invent that will be effective. Smashing Starbucks windows isn’t an answer. As you quite rightfully say, it mostly just pisses off the locals.

  2. Protesting is just one thing; not the only thing protesters usually do. Most of the people/protesters I know through my Green Party work and my peace, environmental and electoral reform activism are doing many of the things you list and then some.

  3. Bob’s habit of late is to set up these straw left men and denounce them.

    I went on my first demonstration in 1969 and after that one an section of the movement were already appealing for no more street protests.

    In fact the whole Vietnam Moratorium movement here in Australia was being constantly undermined by a section of anti- street protest advocates who were always tired of marching. If it was not conservatives then it was ultralefts who insisted we had to up the anti with more militant protests and clashes with the forces of the state.

    I agree that the personal potency of protest making has not the same impact as it did in the sixties but then the protest movements were only then being reborn — especially in the wake of the Civil Rights experience.

    At the moment the conundrum we face is that there’s still a war on — a very hot war in Afghanistan — and the anti war movement is in disarray internationally. In fact it has to be rebuilt. I don’t really care how that is done because a ‘movement’ uses many ways to skin a cat. But we do know that street protests aggregate and single its strength . We also know that we cannot at that moment of time pull out tens or hundreds of thousands out onto the streets no matter how much we tried.

    That’s the core complication — a state of demoralisation — especially as I suggest when the Democrat and Obama option still embraces a war footing.

    So what G20 represents is a small very aware section of that movement and, inasmuch as it has context, the protests announce resistance and enable activists to mix it with one another.

    But as for the unwashed masses — not much is happening actively as far as war and its like are concerned. That doesn’t mean that people won’t move, the question is what will move them. So I think the climate change movement is an excellent example of a movement that is complex and diverse and which can not simply be addressed by calling for street protests.

    I think we are more advanced here in a Australia than in many other countries because the sector of that movement I belong to has been aggressive in advancing a street agenda — but not only a street agenda. What that has meant is that some semblance of national organisation is coming together to give that thrust some grass roots content.

    . That doesn’t mean we or the whole movement isn’t engaged in other ways but we know there is a massive angst and anger over climate change inaction . Our challenge is to give that attitude some concrete presence and keep that position buoyant so that it is a player in national politics. Similarly protests in that context register to people that even if they do not march, they are definitely not alone.

    So you find yourself working with many sectors — land care groups, community and organic gardeners,forest activists, etc — and with some hesitancy on their part, trade unions and their members. No one is fulfilling Bob’s straw left man promise and insisting on a street protest — now this moment –as the only way to proceed. But what that aspiration does nonetheless is give the movement some form when the only other time it comes together with a shared platform is at election time. (And then its another challenge of creative politics.)

    The complication in regard to protesting is that protests are never enough in themselves.It is this realisation that so irks a sector of the movements who then want to share their demoralised insight. And to some degree they are correct: whats’ needed is a political solution not just a protest one. In the US and here, part of that solution is fostering a party experience that can pose as an alternative to the Democrats. We know of course that while the Dems subsume every movement that comes along social change defaults to an exercise in left wing Democrts lobbying.

    I think the main difference between the sixties and now is that people realise that they are indeed on this Tweedle Dee / Tweedle Dum tread mill and all they can hope for is what Washington allows. Its’ the same here.

    So our trap isn’t just that we can get tired of marching but that we cannot go beyond marching.

    • The Pittsburgh G20 protests aren’t focused. That’s what we somehow need to do. Have demos and actions where it’s completely obvious and clear what the point is. Even many of the Iraq antiwar protests didn’t have that, as the speakers and propaganda were on a multitude of issues.

      As for mass protests, ANSWER has called antiwar protests for next month, albeit on a much reduced scale. They don’t really know how to do anything else. The LA protest will be on a street corner rather than being a march and rally and it doesn’t look like they’ll even have one in DC, which was usually the main one. It appears that much of the anti-war movement was maybe just really anti-Bush. Hmmm.

      As for straw men, you’ve been known to set me up as one, then take a whack at me. 🙂 And I genuinely appreciate your thoughtful posts.

      So how do we get off the tread mill? That’s what I was trying to explore. Because what the left is doing now clearly isn’t working.

  4. I went to my first protest in 1976 when I was 16– against the Seabrook nuclear power plant. It got built anyway, and even bankruptcy hasn’t shut it down.

    I also attended the 1999 Peace Meditation in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where 170,000 people gathered to show their support for peace. That developed into a comprehensive strategy that helped bring about the 2002 Cease-Fire Agreement. (Then we dropped the ball and failed to follow through– a guilt still carry. The CFA only lasted 4 years.)

    It’s also true that the Powers That Be do a better job of sedating us than they did 40 years ago. Back then, it was “Do you want to watch “Leave It To Beaver’ or go to a protest?” Well, duh. Now most folks have a thousand channels demanding they come home and watch the next installment of “Survivor.”

    That said, there are a number of models for nonviolent comprehensive action, from Gandhi to Alinsky to Ariyaratne. All work, but only if used.

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